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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Secret ASIS spy war on people smugglers

BY:PAUL MALEY AND BRENDAN NICHOLSON
From:The Australian
July 19, 2012 12:00AM

AUSTRALIA'S overseas espionage service is fighting a secret war on people-smuggling, sending small teams of officers into some of the most dangerous parts of Pakistan to work with local authorities and smash the trafficking rings.

The Australian Secret Intelligence Service is also playing a direct role in counter-terrorism operations overseas, a dramatic and significant evolution of its established role as an intelligence-gatherer.

ASIS director-general Nick Warner will today give the first public address by a serving head of the service in its 60-year history.

His speech comes as The Australian can reveal Australia's spies have been placed on the frontline of Canberra's fight against people-smuggling, arguably a distortion of its role as the overseas guardian of Australia's "vital interests".

In an address to the Lowy Institute in Canberra, Mr Warner will describe how ASIS officers are now involved more directly in counter-terrorist operations, where in the past they have mainly gathered intelligence.

The spy chief will tell the institute the "challenges of helping to prevent terrorist attacks and providing the intelligence edge to Australian soldiers in the field have impacted greatly on ASIS".

"Undertaking supporting operations that achieve a direct outcome, as distinct from our more traditional intelligence-gathering operations, is now of increasing importance," he will say.

The rare insight into Australia's most secretive intelligence agency comes as interviews with security officials in the Pakistani city of Quetta, the hub of the Hazara smuggling trade to Australia, reveal ASIS officers stationed at the Australian high commission in Islamabad travel regularly to Quetta, from where they pass intelligence on smugglers to Pakistan's Federal Investigations Agency.

That intelligence, much of which comes from asylum-seekers interviewed on Christmas Island, forms the basis of investigations or disruption activities undertaken by officials in Quetta, where most of the Hazara asylum-seekers arriving in Australia are from. The Australian has been told that two years ago, the FIA's Quetta zone established the Team for Hazara Illegal Immigrants, a taskforce focused on arresting, prosecuting or otherwise disrupting the people-smugglers - or agents, as they are known locally - responsible for sending thousands of Hazaras to Australia by boat.

The taskforce works with three or four ASIS officers stationed in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.

The director of the FIA's Quetta zone, Shakeel Durrani, said his team worked closely with both the Australian Federal Police and ASIS but the spy agency was the main contact point for information.

Just one day before The Australian interviewed Mr Durrani, an ASIS officer travelled to Quetta for a detailed meeting on people-smuggling.

The day before that, an officer from the AFP met Mr Durrani's team on the same subject.

Mr Durrani said the information handed over by ASIS at least helped to "bog down" the smuggling agents if there was not enough evidence to prosecute.

"Sometimes we are not in a position to register the case and we have something against them so we register an inquiry," he said.

"We call them, we interrogate them, we take their statements. That really hampers their working. I believe that's what the AFP and ASIS has really appreciated.

"For the last few months, especially from this area of Pakistan, it has really come down quite a bit."

In 2009 ASIS was given an extra $21 million over two years to combat the boat trade to Australia. But the focus on preventing people-smuggling would suggest a distortion of the service's mission statement, which is to protect and promote Australia's "vital interests".

As is the case with the AFP, Customs and the navy, there is understood to be frustration within ASIS over the demands people-smuggling has placed on the service.

ASIS specialises in the collection of "HUMINT" - human intelligence derived from a network of locally cultivated sources.

Today, Mr Warner is expected to discuss the spectrum of threats it confronts. The career diplomat and senior public servant is the only member of ASIS who can be publicly identified. He will say it is time to shed light on work done by the agency and its unique contribution to foreign policy and security.

He is expected to discuss the "continuing and real" threat posed by terrorist groups who may seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction, which he describes as the "ultimate nightmare for security planners" and a prime concern for security agencies.

He will detail the service's approach to dealing with an operational sphere that is "more challenging, volatile and dangerous than at any time since the service's formation" in 1952.

He will say ASIS's core values are "integrity, honesty and trust" and stress that it does not use "violence or blackmail or threats".

His speech comes two years after the head of MI6, John Sawers, gave the first address by a serving head of Britain's spy service, which served as the model for ASIS.

One Pakistani security officer, who asked not to be named, said the quality of the information provided by ASIS was "very good".

"The main source of information they are getting is the victims that are getting to Australia," the officer told The Australian.

"We can't use it in evidence because there are two different laws operating. We can use it as a source of information."

Mr Durrani said his team were investigating 10 to 12 suspected smugglers.

Quetta, in Pakistan's Baluchistan region and 100km from the Afghan border, is the main point of origin for most of the Hazara asylum-seekers who arrive in Australia.

In its country advice, the Department of Foreign Affairs describes the region as "extremely dangerous" and warns Australians not to travel there, citing the risk of kidnapping and assassination.

Quetta has become the focus of myriad anti-people-smuggling initiatives run by the Australian government, from spying to law enforcement co-operation to public awareness campaigns about the dangers of illegal migration.

Ethnic Hazaras are at risk of persecution in parts of Pakistan, including Quetta, just as they are in Afghanistan.

But Canberra's focus on Quetta also reflects longstanding concerns within the Australian government that there is widespread rorting of the asylum program, with most Afghans not being from Afghanistan at all.

Rather, they are first or second-generation Afghans whose families moved to Pakistan decades ago and who are coached by smugglers.

Mr Durrani said smugglers there followed a standard modus operandi when moving people out of Pakistan.

"Out of Pakistan they travel absolutely legally," he said.

"They reach maybe Indonesia, Malaysia, (then) they destroy their documents and pretend . . . to be from Afghanistan."

It is understood the smugglers charge between $US8000 ($7768) and $US10,000 for a trip, although some smuggling sources put the figure higher, at about $US12,000.

A spokesman for ASIS declined to comment on this story.

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